Earlier today I looked at the right field position for the 2013 season, then looked at the free agent options this off-season. Right field was an issue for the Pirates this year, to the point that they had to trade for Marlon Byrd before the August trade deadline to shore up the position. In the future, right field won’t be an issue with Gregory Polanco close to the majors, and likely arriving during the 2014 season.
As I pointed out in the free agent article, there aren’t a lot of options for the Pirates. The best options would demand multiple years, a lot of money, and the loss of a first round pick in 2014. You’d be giving up a pick, spending a lot of money, and blocking your best prospect, all to fill a hole for one year, and maybe less than that. There are a few bounce back candidates, although they’re all older with questions that they’re on the downside of their career, rather than in a down year. A better alternative to a bounce back candidate would be Jose Tabata and Andrew Lambo getting a shot. Either way you’re giving a one year shot to an unknown in right field. If Tabata and/or Lambo work out, then you’ve got value beyond the 2014 season.
Tabata and Lambo might not be preferred, especially if you believe that a team has to operate in a different manner once they’re contenders, and can only go with proven players or players with previous success. I’d argue that the Pirates made the playoffs in 2013 with a big hole in right field for five months, and they lost in the playoffs with an established right fielder. So the idea that they couldn’t compete if Tabata/Lambo doesn’t work out is misguided, especially since Polanco could arrive in the second half and replace those two if they aren’t working out.
That said, having an established right fielder would make things easier for the Pirates. They just can’t block Polanco, who I believe could be better than Andrew McCutchen, and will at least be an impact player in the same manner as McCutchen. It’s not a problem if Polanco doesn’t come up in 2014, but he needs to arrive after that. So how do they upgrade right field in 2014 without blocking Polanco beyond 2014?
There are two outside the box scenarios the Pirates could try to achieve this result.
Right Field in 2014, Another Position After That
In the comments section of the free agent article, “ginbear” suggested Jhonny Peralta to play right field in 2014, then moving to backup third base, shortstop, and right field beyond that. I’d question the defensive skills of Peralta, but it’s not a bad idea since the Pirates lack depth at both shortstop and third base.
My similar idea would be finding someone who could play right field in 2014, and move to first base in future years. Looking at the free agent list, Shin-Soo Choo might be the best option for this idea. Choo is an outfielder, but has horrible defense in the outfield. Offensively he does a lot, highlighted by great on-base skills. I personally think that the worries about Starling Marte batting leadoff are overblown, although that’s irrelevant with Choo. He was the best leadoff hitter in the game in 2013, and would be a huge boost to the top of the lineup.
Choo would cost a lot of money. He’d also cost a draft pick. But the Pirates have money to spend, and trading a draft pick for multiple years of Choo isn’t bad. The big question is whether the Pirates could sign Choo. They’re contenders now, and they’ve got money to spend, so there aren’t many free agents who should be out of reach. I don’t think they could land a massive free agent who would cost $20 M per year, but I also don’t think Choo would be that type of free agent.
The advantage with finding someone to eventually move to first base is that you’re not blocking anyone. First base is a need, and the Pirates don’t have any internal options to take over in the short-term. Alex Dickerson, Stetson Allie, Matt Curry, and Jose Osuna all show promise in the top three levels, but they all have question marks and none of them look ready to break down the doors to the majors in the next year or two. But for now, first base is more of a need than right field.
There is the chance that Choo could reject a move to first base, either when the Pirates are negotiating, or when they eventually try to move him. So while the move sounds good on paper, it might not go as easy in real life.
A Sign and Delayed Trade
An alternative, and possibly more likely scenario, would be signing a player for the 2014 season, then trading him prior to the 2015 season. The candidates here would be guys like Carlos Beltran or Marlon Byrd, who would likely only command a two-year deal. The Pirates would have to give up a pick for Beltran, but wouldn’t give up anything for Byrd.
The downside is that if the player who is signed struggles or gets injured, you’re stuck with their contract in 2015. Both players are 37, so decline or injury is a risk. But if that doesn’t happen, the Pirates can get strong production in right field in 2014, then get a boost in prospects by dealing either Byrd or Beltran for the 2015 season.
Thinking Outside the Box
Both scenarios come with risk. The idea with Choo sounds good on paper, but everyone will be going after Choo this off-season, and most will be going after him as a full-time outfielder. It’s possible the Pirates won’t get him, and it’s possible he would never go for playing first base.
The delayed trade idea is more likely to work out as planned. As long as there’s no decline in 2014 from Beltran or Byrd, the Pirates would win all around. Of course, I can only imagine that next year I would be writing “Yes, the Pirates have to trade (Beltran/Byrd) and give Polanco the right field job”.
The downside to each plan is that you don’t give Jose Tabata or Andrew Lambo a chance. That means you don’t get to find out whether Tabata’s finish to the 2013 season was legit, and you don’t get to find out if Lambo’s 33 home runs in 2013 was for real. It’s easy to just chalk any unknown up to a guaranteed failure when the alternative of Beltran, Byrd, or Choo looks like a guaranteed success. But if Andrew Lambo was for real, and the Pirates lost out on him all to upgrade over his position for one year in 2014, then that would be worse than giving Lambo a shot and watching him fail in the majors. In short, there’s no easy decision when it comes to right field, except for the long-term starter: Gregory Polanco.
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